I think one of the biggest privileges of working in consulting as Oxford do is that we aren’t anchored to one industry or business alone and while a ‘jack of all trades’ may be ‘a master of none’, I recently learned that the full idiom is much more accurate description of our experience:
‘A jack of all trades is a master of none but oftentimes better than a master of one’
While we’d never dispute there are instances where in-depth specialisms are required – I write this sitting on a plane, deeply grateful that my pilot has trained for years to do what he does – there is no doubt in my mind that in a world as complex, rapidly changing and interwoven as ours, now, more than ever, being able to step back, challenge and join the dots provides a perspective with unique value. The issues we will face over the coming 5 to 10 years are going to require the ability to step back further, challenge ourselves to find completely different solutions and be able to make connections in ways teams have simply never had to before.
So here are just a few thoughts as I reflect on the market trends that create consistent challenges across industries and clients today, some perhaps a little nearer in, and some perhaps a little further out.
Balancing the ‘long’ and the ‘short’ when it feels like the ‘short’ is on fire
There is no doubt right now that our clients, and many like them, are facing material and immediate challenges as they seek to grow their businesses. It’s also no surprise. Cost of living is rising, people’s budgets are under pressure and every day people are making choices about what they value more and where they will spend the money they do have. As growth slows, it’s easy to look at pulling harder and harder on short-term levers like price (however it’s executed) to shore up volume, but the data repeatedly shows that taking a long-term view and investing in supporting trusted brands is more likely to be successful at delivering sustained growth. The allure of such choices is powerful, but the most successful businesses will compete at both ends of the spectrum, finding ways to adjust the balance of their overall strategy without tipping it entirely one way or the other. We’d encourage teams to continue to ask themselves whether they have moved too far in one direction, as this will help provide an initial sense check. That the growth strategy work we’ve done with one of our personal care clients has lived on in this business for three years now has proven that it’s a key consideration to being able to build sustainable strategic plans.
Focusing on the internal need to grow vs the external potential
Growth requires someone to change their behavior, to buy something they haven’t bought (at least for a while), to buy more of something they already buy, or to spend more on something. Yet despite the simplicity of this approach, the scale of short-term challenges is often driving organizations to focus internally on what they want to do (sell more) or say (please buy us) when the real power lies in focusing externally to understand what is preventing these behaviors from occurring and then working out which levers can be pulled to shift the value for people around them. Practically, we’re big champions of thinking about where your source of growth is, the barriers and triggers involved and then designing solutions around this. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to be consumer/shopper-focused and powered by insight. We’re using this kind of thinking with a food client at the moment, helping them shift to a penetration-based approach to growth.
Combining new ways of working with ‘old’
That COVID significantly changed ways of working is without doubt, and seeing/supporting clients to respond was exciting. What has been interesting since then is to see how our clients across industries have adapted to a new reality, from actively encouraging (or requiring) people back in the office full time to choosing partial returns or remaining flexible. We’ve been a virtual organization since we were founded over 30 years ago and know from experience that time together matters – we are after all a social species – yet even we are unlearning habits unconsciously picked up and relearning old habits that added value. We’d advocate for teams to have the flexibility to choose when they need to be together and the guidance/understanding that time together is important for lots of reasons. We would encourage this time to be focused around three things: (1) the kind of work needing to be done; (2) the relationships that need to be built; and (3) the coaching and development required. Days of the week feels like a blunt tool to use when output and impact are the most critical measures. Practically, at the moment with a chocolate client we’re using a blend of virtual discussion sessions designed to lead up to a focused in-person day that will allow us to accelerate thinking and decision making forward fast while the team is together.
The value of ‘pre-competitiveness’ and its potential impact
Looking forward, it’s clear that the challenges facing many categories as they seek healthy growth are larger than any single competitor. Increasingly, we’re hearing more discussion, amongst teams or on stages at conferences, about balancing what it is critical to compete on with where in combination there is the potential to make significant change. This is a healthy debate, as many of our most pressing challenges cannot be solved by one brand, business or organization alone. This is a newer space, it’s a complicated one and needs to be handled with care in many respects, but there’s potential to make a real difference to our health, our planet’s health and the health of businesses across sectors. Getting this right requires us to step back and ‘open up the aperture’ when it comes to thinking about the kinds of vision and strategy that businesses are setting. We need to lift the altitude of problems we’re trying to solve, making sure that we have enough focus on the long term and at the right kind of scale.
Reflecting on what ties all these points together, another phrase comes to mind: it states that we ‘always overestimate the change in the next year but underestimate the change in the next ten’. So our advice, or perhaps a philosophy if you like, would be one of balance. To be clear, this is not ‘doing everything’, it’s also not a lack of change; it’s simply recognizing that we need to make choices about what we change to help us today and where we get ahead so we’re ready for a different tomorrow.
About the author
Jon is a Director here at Oxford, focused on finding beautifully simple growth solutions to business challenges. Can we help you too?